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Title: The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power
Author: S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher, Michael J. Platow
Reviewer: David Evans, Burn Bridge Associates
Reviewer’s rating: 4 out of 5
The authors focus on our identification with the “we” and the associated notion of how we behave. In this respect, it draws from a classic psychological tenet of social identity theory. Leadership is defined as about getting people to want to do things and therefore touches on beliefs, values, priorities and personal desires. ”It is about achieving influence, not securing compliance.” And it is about getting things done through others.
Much previous work on leadership focussed on the characteristics that make an individual a good leader. It implied a degree of “I-ness” whereas the authors’ position is that leaders’ focus should be on “we-ness” to achieve shared endeavour.
The authors describe early examples of the leader as “great man”, before moving onto the discussion of personality psychology and the democratisation of the discipline through batteries of standardised personality testing. Early work on the personal attributes of a leader were weak because they failed to take account of the context in which leaders operate.
Leader-thinking should embrace the idea that leaders’ psychology is shaped and transformed by their engagement in shared group activity; and furthermore that it is context-sensitive.
Leadership is always predicated on followship. Followship can be seen both as a perceptual issue (how the leaders is perceived by the followers) and as one contingent on interactions and transactions between leaders and followers. The authors include a discussion about equity theory – leadership is dependent on the equilibrium between what is expected and delivered between leaders and followers. The motivation to follow is less about “what’s in it for me?” and more about intrinsic motivation factors and the sense of “we-ness.”
Leadership, then, is based on influence and the convincing development of a future that has been co-created and is relevant to all parties.
The authors talk about the dynamics of belonging to a group and individuals’ connectedness to the groups to which they belong. Discussion on social identity and social categorisation theory shows in this book that “social identity is the cognitive mechanism that makes group behaviour possible” (Turner, 1982, p.21 – quoted in this book).
Social categorisation theory is the cognitive process by which individuals transform from an individual sense of self to a sense governed by social identity.
People’s response to leadership is described by the authors as a process of depersonalisation whereby individuals redefine themselves in terms of the group. A framing principle for leadership is, therefore, that the exercise of leadership, in the sense of influence over collectivity, depends on the existence of shared identity amongst those involved.
The authors talk about the prejudices of leadership: leaders are not ‘a race apart’; nor is leadership conferred on one person as sole leader. The role of followers in supporting, developing and underpinning leaders cannot be understated. The role of leaders can often be overstated – particularly when the group is successful.
The authors spend a significant part of their concluding comments debunking the role of leader as some sort of heroic figure. Instead, they talk about the practice of leadership, labelling their model of leadership as identity leadership; comprising reflection (observing and listening to the group in order to understand its culture, and not rushing to assume authority); representation (ensuring that your actions reflect and advance the group’s values – and, displaying how one represents the group rather than being in it for one’s own aggrandisement); and, realisation (delivering, and being seen to deliver, the things that matter to the group – material, symbolic and spiritual achievements need to be accumulated in accordance with the group’s social values).
This book adds to the extensive debate about leadership: it asserts that its success depends on context. It furthermore strives to establish the proposition that leadership is not a quality of leaders per se but rather of the relationship between leaders and followers. And, leadership is not just about existing social realities but also about the transformation of social reality: leaders create a social framework and context that best suits the team and the tasks facing them.
I liked this book: it is challenging, both to read and to conceptualise. However, it adds to one’s understanding of the breadth of the subject in new and interesting ways.